A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing a long-time Algerian friend, Karim Metref* in Casablanca. Metref is an Algerian-born writer and educator who has lived and worked in Italy for many, many years. He was in Casablanca – with part of his family from France – to attend the wedding of his nephew, a young Frenchman of Algerian descent. After exchanging hellos, Metref bitterly confided that some relatives would not be able to come to the party.
Last summer, however, I met another Algerian friend in Rabat, K. Cheikh, a publisher who lives and works in Algiers. Cheikh was invited by the French Cultural Institute in Morocco for a book fair held in Rabat this year. To get to Morocco, Cheikh had to make a stopover in France and had to do the same to get home: Rabat-Paris-Algiers. If my two Algerian friends were able to get to Morocco, and if our meetings were possible, this is only thanks to the fact that the former is resident in Europe, while the latter took advantage of an official invitation from a French entity that allowed him to transit from a third country in order to reach Morocco.
I lived and worked in Algeria between 2014 and 2018. In those years one could still take a direct flight from Algiers to Casablanca and vice versa, and I made many trips between the two capitals. Outbound as well as return, the flights were always packed with Algerians and Moroccans whose fate was, for one reason or another, linked to the two countries. In the sleepy hours of waiting at the airport, I remember making the acquaintance of a family whose story made me aware of the difficulty of movement in the Maghrebi space: if for me those direct flights were a great advantage because I could get from Algiers to Casablanca – my city of origin – in less than two hours, for many others, including that family, it was a real nightmare.
The man was Moroccan from Oujda and his wife was Algerian from Maghnia, while the family lived in Tlemcen with their four children. There are 111 kilometers separating Oujda from Tlemcen: the two cities are emblematic of the interconnectivity of the Moroccan and Algerian populations, linked by deep human, cultural and economic ties, expressed through family relationships extended across borders. In normal times it would only take an hour’s drive to travel the 111 kilometers separating the two cities, the two countries, but instead that family – which is by no means an exception – had to undertake an odyssey: 500 kilometers from Tlemcen to Algiers; flight to Casablanca and another 600 kilometers by road to reach Oujda. That’s basically 3 days of travel, a lot of hard work and over five thousand euros in travel expenses alone. All this was before September 21, 2021, the date when Algeria severed diplomatic relations with Morocco and closed its airspace, blocking any possibility of human exchange between the two neighboring countries.
Historically, North Africa was a united space. Concepts such as “nation state” or national boundaries remained completely unknown for centuries in the political organization of this vast area. The fluidity of the Maghreb space is the result of shared ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural roots that have distinguished the people of North Africa for millennia. A shared history that was also expressed through political unity, brought about by the great dynasties (the Almohads, Almoravids) that ruled over the entire Maghreb. Historic cities such as Fes, Tlemcen or Kairouan, Marrakesh, Tamanrasset, or Ghat were connected not only by trans-Saharan trade routes, but also by a strong brotherhood made up of human, cultural, and social exchanges also fostered by the presence of transnational tribes that were at the center of the political and social organization and functioning of the whole Maghreb. Tribes such as Zenata, Sanhaja or Houara are in fact transnational entities and are still extended throughout the Maghreb. The free movement of populations was a given since no geographic obstacles or legal constraints prevented them from traveling throughout the Maghreb and beyond.
One of the high points of this movement occurred during the period of pilgrimage to Mecca, when massive amounts of people flowed across the Maghrebi space to the Hijaz. During the crossing, especially on the return journey, whole families or groups of people would choose not to return to their native country and settle or permanently or for several years in some center of the greater Maghreb. Characters such as Abu El Hassan Chazli or El Morsi Abu El Abbas or Ahmed Zarouk, great masters of Sufism were true transnational citizens, who starting from North Africa had sown along their way, from west to east, schools, shrines, villages and entire communities of believers, further strengthening the feeling of a deep brotherhood among the people of the Maghreb.
This deep fraternity – which over time has not prevented the emergence of a national sentiment specific to each country – found its greatest expression during the period of liberation against French occupation. The most significant example is the support given by Morocco and Tunisia, who had gained their independence in 1956, to the Algerian people in their revolution (1954-1963). Morocco welcomed more than 60,000 Algerians between 1863 and 1963 and provided a valuable base of operations for Algerian patriots until the country gained independence: many Algerian politicians, such as former President Bouteflika and former intelligence director Kasdi Merbah were born and raised in Morocco.
Once independence was won, the Maghreb countries cooperated with each other to gradually build a coherent and harmonized zone. Moreover, this is what was hoped for by the region’s leaders even before the liberation process was concluded. However, the road was long and complex, and the birth of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) did not happen until 1989, bringing together Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania.
The AMU’s founding charter declares that it pursues the following objectives: “The consolidation of the fraternal relations that bind the member states and their peoples; the realization of the progress and welfare of their communities and the defense of their rights; the maintenance of a peace based on justice and equity; and the progressive realization of freedom of movement of persons, goods, services and capital among the member countries.”
Thirty-three years after its inception, the record is bitter. Not only have the intentions expressed then remained on paper, but with the succession of years and crises, the distances between the states have become more and more unbridgeable, increasingly highlighting the failure of the Maghreb integration project. A disintegration that has inevitably led to the strengthening of national identities and the triumph of populism and demagoguery, and what until a few years ago was a disagreement between regimes has become a conflict between peoples.
The reasons for this failure are multiple and interconnected. With the conclusion of the decolonization process, the Maghreb countries embarked on opposing ideological and political trajectories that created deep rifts. While Morocco maintained historical and political continuity with the Alawite monarchy and was unequivocally counted among the Western countries’ allies, adopting a liberal economy and opening up to tourism and foreign investment, Algeria and Libya, on the other hand, followed the path of socialism, pan-Arabism and revolutionarism, violently breaking with the colonial past and opting to build a strong welfare state and a planned economy. Under former presidents Bourghiba and Ben Ali, Tunisia tried to maintain an equal distance and neutrality from the nationalist zeal of the Algerians and Libyans and the conservatism of Morocco, opting for the construction of a secular and emancipated Tunisian identity. And although the postwar historical circumstances that legitimized either choice were over, the weight of these differences remained present and even intensified in the last two decades, especially between Algeria and Morocco.
Another reason is the French colonial legacy. French geographer Yves Lacoste** summarizes the situation France left behind upon its withdrawal from the Maghreb as follows: “If we simply note the length of the borders drawn at the beginning of the 20th century by the French colonial authorities, we can conclude that the boundaries of the Maghreb states are not very different in origin from those of the Arab states of the Middle East: of the 5,800 kilometers of border marking the territory of Algeria, 5,200 were drawn by the French; of the 2,700 kilometers of border in Morocco 2,400 are colonial borders; a smaller percentage for Tunisia, where 1,100 kilometers out of 1,400 are colonial borders.”
A long and grueling series of territorial disputes has stalled any aspirations that the newly independent Maghreb states may have had for human, political and economic integration. In order, the first of these disputes concerned Mauritania. Morocco grudgingly accepted the birth of this state, whose territory was considered by Moroccans as an integral part of the historic “Grand Maroc.” Even more serious was the military conflict that pitted Morocco against Algeria in 1963,* against the backdrop of Moroccan claims to part of the Algerian desert, especially the Bechar and Tindouf regions. While relations between Tunisia and Libya were long poisoned due to a dispute over the Gulf of Gabes that ended only in 1988 with an International Court of Justice decision in favor of Tunisia.
A third reason for the failure in cooperation is due to each country’s desire to present itself on the international stage as a regional power and to favor its own interests without any regard for the regional context. The inertia of governments in implementing the principles of the AMU and the failure to establish a large area of free trade and freedom of economic and human movement has led to heated rivalry among the Maghreb countries. At no time in contemporary history have Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania presented themselves on the international stage as a cohesive and united bloc.
Whether it’s foreign, security, or economic policy or development projects, each country individually defines its own priorities and positioning. This fact emerges clearly in the relationship with the European Union (EU), which has had to negotiate a specific trade treaty with each country, when it would be more natural for such treaties to be signed between one trading community and another (i.e., the EU and the AMU). This rivalry is also often housed in international institutions such as the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the United Nations (UN) or the Arab League, whose meetings have become a forum for political skirmishes and diplomatic rudeness between representatives of Maghreb countries. And it is reflected even more in international policy choices. Morocco, for example, is the only country in the area that has normalized relations with Israel and severed relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, while Algeria continues to make an ideological masthead out of their defense of the Palestinian cause.
Finally, the issue of Western Sahara. For 47 years a poorly mediatized dispute has pitted Morocco against the Polisario Front over sovereignty over the vast area called Western Sahara, which had been occupied by Spain since 1884. Upon its withdrawal in 1975, King Hassan II of Morocco organized a march to regain what he considered an integral part of his kingdom. About 350,000 people marched from all regions of Morocco to the Sahara, clashing with the desire for self-determination of a part of the Sahrawi population, of which the Polisario Front considered itself the legitimate representative. The conflict took on regional dimensions when Algeria welcomed thousands of Sahrawi refugees onto its territories and together with Libya financed and supported the Polisario militias in their war effort against Morocco. The military confrontation lasted until 1988 when the two sides, mediated by the UN, reached an agreement that provided for “a cease-fire and the holding of a referendum allowing the people of Western Sahara to exercise their right to self-determination, to choose between independence or integration with Morocco.”
Faced with the impossibility of organizing such a referendum because of the disagreement between the two sides on who was eligible to vote, Morocco proposed an alternative plan in 2007 that provided for autonomy, under the sovereignty of Rabat, a solution that the Polisario and Algeria considered. The cease-fire still holds, but a diplomatic and media war is ongoing between the parties, with military tension holding the entire area hostage. And while Morocco’s position has emerged strengthened with the recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara by the United States and the support of Spain and other European, Arab, and African countries for the Moroccan autonomy plan, Algeria and the Polisario have reacted with equally destabilizing maneuvers. From the occupation of the Guerguerat crossing that connects Morocco to Mauritania and is a vital passageway for Moroccan exports to sub-Saharan countries, to lobbying international institutions to sabotage and remove southern areas from the Kingdom’s international trade agreements, to the diplomatic rupture and cessation of all political, economic, and cultural exchanges recently put in place by Algeria.
To these considerations we must add internal crises and a chaotic international environment, which in the case of the Maghreb countries are reasons for dissension. Tunisia, for example, has not yet been able to find the political stability and economic prosperity it desires. The Libyan case is even more emblematic as the fall of Colonel Gaddafi led to the failure of the Libyan state still in the grip of a fratricidal war that has made it marginal on the regional chessboard. Algeria was able to archive the 20-year Bouteflika era thanks to popular momentum, but the opacity of power has not changed, continuing with the same logic of scapegoating governance and internal development issues through the identification of an external enemy that often coincides with neighboring Morocco. The latter, in addition to the aforementioned Sahrawi conflict, faces multiple challenges related to social discontent, economic crisis, made more severe by drought and rising energy prices, and above all an incomplete territorial unity, both in the north and south.
We are thus witnessing the dramatic scuttling of all efforts made so far toward an integration process: trade between the Maghreb countries accounts for less than 2.5 percent of the volume of their trade with the rest of the world. A figure that almost went to zero in October 2021, when Algeria shut down the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline (MEG) that routed Algerian gas through Morocco before reaching Spain and Portugal, intimating Algerian private and public companies to stop future or ongoing contracts with Moroccan operators. While relations between Morocco and Tunisia have particularly cooled since President Kaïs Saied, at the Ticad8 summit, warmly welcomed Ibrahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, which Morocco boycotted precisely because of the Sahrawi delegation’s participation.
In the rare moments of political détente among the Maghreb countries, the tentative steps that were taken to implement the principles of the AMU regarding the free movement of people and goods had surprisingly important and positive repercussions on the economies of all countries in the area. As an example, Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya, starting in the 1970s, as oil prices exploded and until the overthrow of the Raïs, welcomed hundreds of thousands of Moroccan and Tunisian workers. Between 1989 and 2010 alone, more than 300,000 Moroccans and 80,000 Tunisians were living and working in Libya. I myself witnessed that era when thousands of Moroccans left Casablanca, Marrakesh, or Oujda by grand taxi, crossed Algeria and Tunisia and arrived in Libya, which, in the face of the fortification of European borders, had become the Eldorado of young Maghrebians. Likewise, relations between Morocco and Algeria had been particularly revived and reinvigorated during the momentary and brief period of open land borders between 1989 and 1994, giving an economic and commercial boost to the entire region and especially to the border areas of both countries that they were never able to regain.
This brief interlude in which the dream of a Greater Maghreb seemed to materialize revealed the enormous potential of a free market in the area. Its diversity of resources, its vibrancy of the population, and its valuable geostrategic position constitute the pillars of this project, and international economic experts are unanimous that the development of economic and human exchanges and increased cooperation among the various countries would benefit the whole area in terms of employment, stability, and progress. “But the truth is that the AMU is made up of too much talk, too few commitments and very few results.” ***
* Karim Metref, Algerian writer and educator lives and works in Italy. He published two books for publishing house Compagnia delle lettere: “Caravan per Baghdad” (2006) and “Tagliato per l’esilio” (2008).
**Yves Lacoste: Originalité géopolitique du Maghreb : Des frontières très anciennes au sein d’un même ensemble culturel (1998)
*** Yves Lacoste; Originalité géopolitique du Maghreb : Des frontières très anciennes au sein d’un même ensemble culturel (1998)
Cover Photo: A picture taken on September 12, 2013, shows a road sign indicating the way to the border and to Oujda, near the Moroccan-Algerian border. Algerian authorities launched an intensive campaign last June to clamp down on fuel smugglers (photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP).
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